Festivals and the dynamics of culture

During the Live! Singapore event in June, I participated in some interesting panels with international festival organisers and arts professionals on the state of jazz. During the event, it became clear to me how timely the Rhythm Changes project is and how the project research questions tie into so many issues that are of direct relevance to jazz programmers today. For example, how jazz festivals and venues feed into the transformation of scenes and societies, how they can reinforce a sense of civic pride, how jazz events can act as a catalyst for social change etc., are key questions not only for the Rhythm Changes team when examining the dynamics of culture but also for festivals and venues, especially at a time when the value and contribution of jazz to society is often downplayed or misunderstood.

As part of my presentation on programming, I argued that the magical and essential thing about any successful festival or venue is the relationship of music to place. What makes a festival unique are its surroundings, circumstances and the way in which its programming works within these settings. At their best, festivals can act as catalysts for change, transforming everyday spaces into magical worlds or encouraging people to see their environment in a new way or, indeed, they can make us think about the new possibilities our everyday surroundings can open up.

Jazz programming can serve to galvanise communities and feed into a sense of civic pride. It can also help us to experience things that wouldn’t normally occur on our doorstep. Indeed, programmers offer audiences positive experiences of diverse cultures and demonstrate firsthand the benefits of cultural collaboration and exchange. In this respect, international jazz programmes have the potential to go beyond the performance to provide audiences with a new and inspiring cultural experience. Successful programmers tend to capitalise on this, encouraging the reception of jazz as a lifestyle choice.

One of the critical tensions at play within the increasing internationalisation of music programming and the growth and domination of artist agencies and touring schemes, is the question of how programmers differentiate themselves in a market where the same international acts tend to prevail, and touring schedules of musicians with fixed offers tend to overwhelm programming models. The “one shoe fits all approach” might have some benefits to local jazz scenes, giving people in remote parts of the world a rare international experience (believing we are hearing the same things as people in New York for example), but the homogenisation of programming should be treated with caution and misses the opportunity to create special and innovative events and unique festival experiences that celebrate place and the unique characteristics of scenes. Arguably, a festival that just accepts artists who are performing the same repertoire in a number of different locations is not a festival but a promoter or booking agent who facilitates touring and groups a series of unrelated events together under the brand of a festival. The critical tension between the global, the local and the politics of place is of central importance to Rhythm Changes.

Within the Rhythm Changes project, we are also interested in how cultural policy and state subsidy informs the development of jazz scenes and will be using our project to demonstrate why jazz works in certain settings and not in others, highlighting the integral link between art, politics and the dynamics of culture. In my recent visit to Maijazz Festival in Norway, for example, I was interested to observe how the programming for the event said as much about jazz as it did about the city’s desire to showcase its own talents and civic aspirations a?? to show off the Stavanger region and to demonstrate that it was an international player capable of welcoming acts from around the world to participate in the event. aThis experience showed that programming is as important to politicians as it is to arts professionals and audiences, and that successful programmers are becoming increasingly aware of the far-reaching implications of their events.

One thought to “Festivals and the dynamics of culture”

  1. I wonder whether one of this project’s dynamics will be in identifying and exploring any tension between the enthusiasm for and advocacy of jazz music on the one hand and a critical interrogation of its limits and problems on the other. An easy answer might be to say both, I guess. Not sure how adequate that is, though. As Tony touches on, for instance, a more critical reading of international jazz festival–not even terribly provocative–might say that the regular similarity of sounds and artists is the very source of constant homogenisation that reduces or erases the local, specific, maybe the indigenous. And that jazz music does/did that par excellence anyway! Folk forms and folk festivals might be much better examples of mass music events which manage to encapsulate or reflect and directly address questions of local identity. This should make us pause when we present claims about the ‘unique’ or ‘innovative’ aspects of jazz festivals, and ways in which jazz music might reflect, problematise or transform (urban) landscape.

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